Over-the-counter drugs could be killing you

01 September 2017 - 11:32 By Suthentira Govender
Pills and tablets. File photo.
Pills and tablets. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/iStockphoto

Cough mixtures‚ laxatives and painkillers could be killing South Africans who abuse them.

The South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca) warned on Thursday‚ on International Overdose Day‚ that South Africans were not only prone to overdosing on illegal drugs but also on readily available legal medication.

The South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (Sacendu)‚ established by the Medical Research Council (MRC)‚ found that the abuse of over-the-counter and prescription medicines such as slimming tablets‚ analgesics‚ and benzodiazepines used in tranquilisers was becoming prevalent in South Africa.

According to Sacendu's January to June 2016 statistics‚ admissions to its centres for over-the-counter and prescription medicine as a primary or secondary drug of abuse‚ were 0.7% for Mpumalanga‚ 7.2% in the Eastern Cape‚ 1.7% for Gauteng‚ 1.5% in KwaZulu-Natal and 1.1% for the Free State‚ North West and Northern Cape.

The statistics are based on the proportion of patients who have submitted themselves for treatment at Sacendu centres.

During this reporting period‚ 212 (2.4%) patients across all sites reported the non-medical use of codeine‚ with the majority of patients coming from Gauteng.

Prof Charles Parry‚ who heads the MRC's alcohol‚ tobacco and other drug research unit‚ said "overdoses are likely to come from persons who abuse strong prescription opiates like fentanyl."

Sanca spokesperson Adrie Vermeulen said the body was trying to tackle the problem despite there being minimal information on medication overdose in South Africa.

Vermeulen attributed the scarcity of statistics to under-reporting and the stigma of drug-related deaths.

When it comes to general statistics on drug abuse amongst South Africans‚ the 2014 United Nations World Drug report said that 7% of South Africans abused narcotics of some kind. One in 14 people were regular users up to a total of 3.74-million people.

Sanca’s own statistics showed a 35% increase of admissions to the 29 treatment centres over the last 12 years.

When it comes to overdose‚ “many people will assume that it’s only relevant to illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine‚ but people can overdose using prescription drugs or over-the-counter medication.

“Over-the-counter meds are easily obtained from a pharmacy or even a supermarket without a prescription from a medical doctor‚” said Vermeulen.

These are classified under schedule 0‚1 and 2 under the Medicine Control Act 101 of 1965.

“These medications are designed for the short-term treatment of headaches‚ allergies‚ skin irritations‚ coughs‚ cold and flu‚ constipation‚ weight loss‚ nausea‚ indigestion and many more‚” she said.

Vermeulen said what people did not realise was that “most painkillers‚ cold and cough medication contain codeine‚ which is from the opioid family like heroin and morphine".

“If used as instructed‚ it will benefit the person‚ but if abused it could cause dependency and harmful consequences.”

The long-term effects of over-the-counter and prescription abuse include kidney and liver damage‚ seizures‚ heart-rhythm abnormalities‚ stroke and death in some cases. Overdoses are likely to come from people who abuse strong prescription opiates.